Munster head coach Anthony Foley has made five changes in personnel for the GUINNESS PRO12 derby showdown with Connacht at the Sportsground on New Year’s Day (kick-off 5pm).
The returning international trio of Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo are all named in the starting line-up with flanker O’Mahony back to captain the side.
In the front row BJ Botha trades places with Stephen Archer and packs down next to John Ryan and hooker Duncan Casey, while in the second row O’Connell renews his partnership with Billy Holland.
Holland will make his 100th appearance for the province in Galway since making his debut in September 2007 against the Scarlets. He becomes the sixth player in the current squad to reach the milestone.
With the returning O’Mahony at blindside, CJ Stander (pictured above with Ian Keatley) makes the positional switch to number 8 and Tommy O’Donnell retains his place at openside.
The changes to the back-line see JJ Hanrahan start in the number 12 jersey for the second time in as many weeks, while Zebo comes in at full-back for the first time this season.
On the injury front, Gerhard van den Heever underwent his knee surgery on Monday and will commence rehabilitation once the initial post-op recovery is complete.
Munster scrum coach Jerry Flannery, himself a former Connacht player, knows another tough challenge lies in store on Thursday.
“I was used to going up there when I did some work with TG4 and I always really enjoyed going to Connacht because I felt there was a really good atmosphere in the Sportsground and I think that’s built on the fact that they’ve been bringing through more and more local players that people can identify with,” said Flannery.
“The crowd really gets behind them and they have a really good young nucleus of a squad, with the majority of them being lads who played with Connacht underage and they’ll be looking to hold on to those players and kick on and challenge for silverware.
“We’re aware that this is a real challenge. I know from playing there and when working for TG4 that the people who go to watch Connacht don’t just go to be entertained, they go because they want their team to win and they get behind them no matter what. It can be quite an intimidating place.”
MUNSTER (v Connacht): Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Pat Howard, JJ Hanrahan, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; John Ryan, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha, Billy Holland, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Eusebio Guinazu, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Dave O’Callaghan, Neil Cronin, Rory Scannell, Ivan Dineen.